Wow. Okay, so there I was, sitting at a bus stop, utterly screwed. Well, not utterly, just damned inconvenienced. Basically, I left the retreat early, was told by them that there was a 5:00 bus from Greenfield to Northampton, took a cab there, and discovered after the cabbie had left that in fact the last bus had left at 3:40, twenty minutes before I arrived. Called home, no answer. Called Cape Cod, where Mom and Tateh should have left from by now, no answer. So, stuck in Greenfield, where pretty much everything closes down on Sundays, with no one I can call and no clue when my parents will be home (They turned out not to arrive home until the next morning, so it’s good I went another route, or I might well have been stuck outside the Greenfield City Hall all night).
The retreat was not at all what I expected. I think that was the problem; it was the things I didn’t expect that threw me for a loop. The food was delicious. The beds were firm. I hadn’t expected the cabins to be on the far end of an unlit compound from the public restrooms, but I adjusted to navigating that in the dark. No light or electricity on the cabins, but hey, at least no bugs! And my roommate was nice; we talked on the first day. She’s a yoga instructor from North Carolina, really sweet. Even though we weren’t supposed to make eye contact, she’d sometimes sit down next to me at meals with a wink and a grin.
The silence was hard, mostly on the first day. I kept hallucinating that people were yelling because I so craved conversation. But after the first day, I realized how fragile the silence was, and it was still hard, but it was no longer oppressive.
The sitting was hard. You’re up 18 hours a day (starting with a gong at 4AM!) and you spend 14 of those hours sitting in a large dim room, silent, eyes closed, trying to meditate. Even during the breaks, you eat your meals and then you basically have two choices: sit in your own dim room trying to meditate, unable to cry or make a sound because four people in a partitioned cabin means zero privacy, or walk in a little circle of grass in line with the other women who are walking, like inmates in a women’s prison. (Strict segregation of sexes, to the point where there were two separate cafeterias, two separate entrances to the meditation room, and separate male and female instructors.)
And the meditation was hard. The sheer amount of chaotic noise in my mind is staggering, and even a moment of silence, or silence plus one tune or Tibetan chant rattling around in my brain, was hard-won. My mind kept coming up with stuff to make me angry or scared, to make me get up or open my eyes and break my concentration, like thinking there was a bug in my ear, or my breasts were deflating. I’m not kidding. And part of me realized, when I tried to leave on the second day, that my mind has been my best friend as long as I can remember. It’s where I always fled when things got bad. So trying to eradicate my mind felt like I was killing my best friend, or a vital part of myself. Nevertheless, I did recognize that my mind also makes me unhappy for no reason sometimes, or insists on prattling on to others when I can tell no one wants to hear it. So I pressed on, telling myself that I wasn’t so much eradicating my mind as training it, putting a leash on it so I could decide when to use it as a creative outlet and when to quiet it down.
But I think the really hard part, aside from the frustration of how basic and boring the meditation was the first three days (and until day four, I was under the impression that we’d spend the entire ten days focusing our entire attention on the breath through our “noh-strils”) was that the guru who had invented the system taught the entire course by video, and when I went to the Assistant Teachers with my concerns (there was a brief period each day allowed for questions if you had a crisis), they just parroted word for word what I’d heard on the tape and advised me to take comfort in the words of the guru. No suggestions from their own experience or their experience with other students over the years.
The guru kept talking on all the tapes about how non-sectarian and universal the system was, but if this system was perfectly obvious to any true student, as he claimed, why weren’t any of his long-time students around the world qualified to teach the courses instead of pressing ‘play’ on the tape deck? And, as a daughter of a rabbi, working in a seminary, I couldn’t help but wonder: he claims this system was discovered by Buddha himself and passed down from him, so why doesn’t this guy have teachers of his own, or colleagues who were also trained in this system by those teachers? He was very charismatic and charming and funny on the tapes (it was interesting; the video portions of the evening sessions, with everyone curled up on the floor with pillows, had a slumber party feel, and pretty much the only human speech I heard the whole time was people laughing at the little asides he made in the videos) but it felt like the whole system hinged on his cult of personality.
The whole thing was designed to psychologically break you down, which I knew going in, but basically I just didn’t trust the teachers to know how to put us back together again afterwards. By the end of the second day, I wanted to slash my wrists open on the window shutters to prove I was serious about leaving. I was carrying around a shawl Mom gave me because it was like a hug from her, a reminder that somewhere out there, I had a mommy who loved me. Let me say that again: I’m 26 years old and I’m carrying a security blanket. By the end of the third day, I’m counting the change in my jeans pocket to prove to myself that there’s still an outside world and that I can make a phone call for help if I walk 7 miles down the road to the nearest town. By day four, I realized I haven’t been in crisis for a long time, but this place is putting me back there fast. So I got the hell out of there.
So after I got stranded in Greenfield, this nice Deadhead who owns a record store there saw I was stuck and offered me a lift home. Seemed trustworthy, and his golden retriever was very well-trained and affectionate, so I decided he was a safe bet. He had a really cool store, too, full of ’60s and ’70s records, clothes and kitsch, and he had great taste in music. So he and his tattooed, Hell’s Angel buddy (a little guy, raised by two lesbians), drove me home in their van after a quick stop off at their Moose Lodge for beers. I’d never been in a Moose Lodge before, it was like a family friendly bar/restaurant/community center. I stuck to water, watched my glass carefully, and watched to make sure they only had one beer each, before we hit the road. I’m not a suicidal idiot. And it was only after we’d hit the road that I found out the Hell’s Angel had been in prison and had killed someone. It’s funny, all the murderers I know are really nice people. I think I know three by now.
So I had a blast talking to them, listening to their music and watching them gently rib each other and look out for each other like family. They dropped me at Stop&Shop and I walked home from there and was home in bed, safe and sound, by 9:00.